What it takes to bring you the news

typewriterI look at my schedule and find I’m due to cover a small town’s city council meeting on Monday. Last Monday, in a different small town, was another city council meeting. And, there will be yet another one on some other Monday of the month as it is every month. As a freelance reporter for a small, daily newspaper, I have my beats; those city council meetings, a few planning and zoning committee meetings, and once in awhile, a special event or feature article.

It’s not often that we think about what it takes to bring the news to you on a daily – nay, minute by minute – basis, just like we rarely think about what it takes to put an automobile together, the canned goods in a grocery store, or the electricity through those countless miles of power lines. None of the work is visible, unlike the construction of a new home, a building or a roadway.

Now, with a tanked economy sinking many newspapers out of business, along with the transition to online delivery, news has taken an even harder hit with little revenue to keep the process going. Not many understand that without the news, the government and everything else runs amok. And, it is now since there are far fewer reporters out there witnessing and writing about what is going on. The news, especially the local news, is what keeps us together, on the same page and participating members of our community.

Though my camera goes with me everywhere I go, prepping to cover a story in the evening starts by remembering to grab my notebook and pen on my way out the door in the morning. I’ve got the workday to get through, then the drive to wherever the city council meeting is. I don’t get to go home first, or rest, though sometimes, I will grab some fast food through a drive-through to gulp down while driving. There is an art to driving while eating and not wearing half the food. I’ve almost got it down pat.

If I’m early, I grab a few minutes to check email and phone messages before I head in to scan over the media packet given to me by the city clerk. Sometimes, those media packets are books; other times, just a few pages. The meeting agenda on top lets me know the topics that will be discussed, and all the rest contain the details of those topics. It may sound a bit boring, rote and uninteresting, and so far, it isn’t much more than that.

The story begins to take shape as soon as the meeting is called to order. A city council meeting is “on the record” and documents everything the mayor and aldermen, both elected representatives of the people, so there are protocols that must be followed. The meetings are tape recorded then transcribed and made a part of public record. But, those tape recordings don’t capture facial expressions or body language, and it is both that I observe to glean what is felt to be important.

I take notes. I take a lot of notes. Some of it is verbatim, some of it is summary. I write those notes furiously, fill pages upon pages and let as much of what is said flow through me and onto the paper.

An hour and a half later, sometimes two hours later, the meeting ends with the click of the Stop button on the tape recorder. The mayor and city aldermen visibly relax, smile and begin to mingle to chat. At that point, my pen is put away and I mingle too. I don’t write down what people say to me at this point, but I learn much about what is behind what was discussed during the official meeting, and it is how I glean the true importance behind the business.

The drive home is spent mulling things over, but not much. I crank the radio up loud and roll the window down to keep my tired mind focused on getting home in one piece. Finally home, it’s late, but I feed Odin and the dogs and fall into bed. 

When the alarm goes off the next morning, I jump out of bed to start the coffee and grab my notebook while the computer is cranking up. I read through the notes from the night before and replay the meeting in my head. This is when I can observe the Big Picture and focus on the facts while taking into account what I felt the people felt was important. Before I grab my first cup of coffee, I know what is the lead topic for the story, and while I’m dumping the honey and creamer into my coffee, I have the first line of the story written.

It takes me an hour to write the story from beginning to end. It’s not the writing itself that takes the time, but the thinking through of how to paint a picture with facts. This is the stuff that affects each and every person in that small town, from the replacement of the tornado warning siren to when a street will be paved to granting a building permit for a new home, the impact is real and it is personal. Yes, it takes time to put together a 400 to 500 word news article.

A quick read through is done before hitting the Send button to get it to my editor, always hoping that he reads through it and catches any error I might have missed. I have just enough time left in my morning routine to feed the horse, fill his water tank and jump in the shower before running out the door to another day’s work.

To get that article to the paper took an average of four hours not counting travel time, and a lot of brain power. The going freelance rate for a newspaper article is $40, which means I am working for about $10 an hour. If the paper accepts a submitted photo to go along with the article, that’s an extra $10. The reporters on salary make about the same per hour. I am not reimbursed for mileage, though those on salary are.

I do this, I cover city council meetings and write the story about them for the newspaper, because I firmly believe in the role news plays in our society. And, I love to write. But, as much as I believe and love, I realistically can’t report the news for no pay at all. I can’t do it for free. I can’t afford it. I keep my fingers crossed each day that the newspaper’s budget allows me to continue writing for it.

My paper is a small town daily, and it is struggling in these horrid times we’re in. But, it’s this newspaper that keeps the community solid, every day. Think about it. Think about what goes into bringing you the news, all the time, effort and process. Then, think about subscribing to your local paper. The cost of a subscription per month is less than what you pay for a pack of cigarettes. Besides, we keep government – politicians – honest, and that’s worth a pack of smokes.

Don’t you think?

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